Three cheers for 'Gator Galley'

January 29, 1993

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine it's lunchtime at your old elementary school.

Remember how the cafeteria looked, all bare and spare, like something out of a hospital?

Remember those cafeteria ladies who glowered if you so much as looked at an extra pudding cup?

Remember the slightly nauseating smell, the beans-and-franks casserole, kale and greasy chicken?

How about those days when you pocketed your lunch money and skipped the whole disgusting mess in favor of milk and a Creamsicle?

Some memories are guaranteed to make us remember that being a kid isn't all adults crack it up to be, and this is one of them. But a new era in school lunch history may be dawning. In Anne Arundel County, Davidsonville Elementary School's "Gator Galley" restaurant -- yes, restaurant -- is the best news for school children since they outlawed the hickory stick.

Under restaurant manager Debbie Gill -- yes, restaurant manager, not cafeteria lady -- children aren't treated as though they should be grateful to get whatever's doled on their plates, hot or not. They're treated with respect. They're treated like customers, with a little pleasantness and politeness, and the right to eat something they like.

Mrs. Gill gets all the credit for this brainstorm. After attending a workshop on school lunch marketing, she re-opened the cafeteria as a "restaurant," complete with menus, flowered centerpieces and walls full of students' artwork. A contest to name the restaurant sparked the children's interest, and a XTC ribbon-cutting ceremony this week made the whole thing official.

As for the food, the recipes haven't changed, but the kids suddenly think it's delicious. Maybe that's because Mrs. Gill makes sure it's hot, and that the children have a daily choice; low-fat pizza, the universal favorite, is an option every day. And she brings in healthful chef salads and baked potatoes -- which are not part of the standard elementary menu -- on her own.

All of this costs the school system virtually nothing. In return, the number of students eating in the restaurant has increased by 52 percent since it opened in September.

That means there are a lot more kids at Davidsonville eating a nutritious lunch than skipping or getting by on ice cream.

The Gator Galley. It's a great idea -- almost enough to make you wish you were a kid again.

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